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Hundley's fate tied to offensive line's health

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Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, October 30, 2017

GREEN BAY--The Green Bay Packers’ future at quarterback the rest of this season is written and there’s little to no hope anything is going to change that.

The offensive line, however, is another story.

When the Packers reconvene after the bye week, it’s likely they will have four of their five starters on the practice field and possibly all five, depending on how well guard Lane Taylor’s ankle has responded to another week of rest.

If the Packers are going to look respectable on offense again, the recovery must start with a healthy offensive line.

With their first five back, coach Mike McCarthy at least would be able to protect quarterback Brett Hundley and try to use his receivers and tight ends in a strategic manner instead of worrying about how his backup tackles are going to be able to hold up in pass protection.

It also would give him a chance to shift the emphasis over to Aaron Jones, who in his only two NFL starts has cracked the 100-yard rushing mark both times. As good as Justin McCray has been run blocking at three different positions, McCarthy could use him as a tight end in a jumbo formation if all five of his starters are back.

If you’re going to put the onus on someone to buttress a shaky quarterback, it might as well be members of a veteran offensive line with years of experience supporting a great one. It’s a responsibility the offensive line wants, but it’s going to require good health for it even to be considered.

“Anytime you get that group of men working together, that continuity, it helps without a doubt,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “Those guys being on the same page, working as one, the communication … It helps when those five guys are out there together, being on the same page and executing."

Judging from the first half of the season, though, it’s possible it’s just one of those years for injuries on the offensive line, possibly an evening of the scale after the offensive line cruised through 2016 with hardly a scratch on it. The line's health was so good that it effectively was missing a starter in just three games the entire season.

During the first seven games of last season, the starting offensive line missed only 32 snaps. Guard T.J. Lang missed the most with 20 and right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed the rest. Everyone else (Corey Linsley and JC Tretter shared the center position) played 100 percent of the snaps.

Now, compare it to this season.

In the first seven games, the offensive line has missed 679 starter snaps. The starting five have played a total of 15 snaps together, all at the start of the Minnesota game in Week 6.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari has missed 293 of a possible 464 snaps. Bulaga has missed 274. Left guard Lane Taylor has missed 108.

In order of highest to lowest, the number of snaps each lineman has taken this season is as follows: Linsley (464), right guard Jahri Evans (464), Taylor (356), McCray (322), Kyle Murphy (228), Bulaga (190), Bakhtiari (171), Lucas Patrick (93) and Ulrick John (32).

When your two starting tackles aren’t even in the top five, you’ve got problems.

And it’s not like the backups have been plugged in at one spot and stayed there. The Packers have started seven different offensive-line combinations and wound up playing with more than those when injuries struck in the middle of a game.

McCray, for instance, has played right tackle, left guard and left tackle. Murphy played right and left tackle. Taylor has played left guard and left tackle.

Murphy is on injured reserve after breaking his foot. Fellow backup tackle Jason Spriggs has been on injured reserve since Week 2 with a hamstring injury.

The Packers cut reserve Don Barclay from injured reserve last week in part because they weren’t confident he was going to be able to play this season.

The stress created by an injured offensive line extends throughout the coaching staff. When the offensive coaches gather Tuesday to set their game plan for the coming week, they try to guess which injured players have a chance to be ready and which don’t.

Often, they take parts of the plan out when they find out one of the linemen won’t be able to play.

When McCarthy was asked how much energy it takes each week for injured players to get healthy, he immediately went to the impact that injury questions have on game preparation.

“It’s a real pain in the butt,” McCarthy said. “You just take last week (before the New Orleans Saints game). At the beginning of the week, we thought we were going to have Lane Taylor and didn’t think we were going to have Bryan Bulaga. We had a whole protection plan set for that scenario, and particularly with Cameron Jordan, who (we) had a lot of respect for going into the game.

“And then you find out Friday morning that now it flipped. So, what do you do? Oh yeah, by the way, you’ve got the quarterback in his first game, so now you’re going to change all the protections on him, too. Those are the things you work through. That’s coaching in the National Football League.”

If his offensive line stays healthy the rest of the season, it’s going to be on McCarthy to figure out how he can use it most effectively. It’s possible Hundley is not the man for the job, and the best McCarthy will be able to do is get Jones and others a ton of work to prepare them for next season.

But if McCarthy can somehow flip the emphasis to the run game and find a way to get Hundley managing games, the team might have a chance to win. It should be encouraging to all the offensive coaches that despite having a quarterback making his first start against the Saints, the team was able to total 181 rushing yards (7.5 avg.).

Teams that don’t run the ball much typically aren’t very good at it, which explains the Packers’ history as a mediocre running team under McCarthy.

“We have a back in Aaron Jones that sees things very well,” Bulaga said. “Once he gets through that line of defenders, he can make a lot of guys miss. As an offensive line, we have to continue to just get him in space and let him do his thing.

“Running the football, it’s a mindset, it’s a mentality thing. We’ll get better going into Detroit (at Lambeau Field on Monday night).”



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